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Selling a Movie in Two Minutes – The Modern
Day Film Trailer

Selling a Movie in Two Minutes – The Modern   


Feature by Daniel Laverick

“Movie trailers are designed to give you an idea
of the film in question in a very short space of

(from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trailer)

The marketing campaign of the modern Hollywood film consists of a myriad of assaults on our senses. Articles in magazines, chat show interviews with the stars, huge billboard posters and the sale of toy light sabres, all aim to increase the financial return on films that can cost up to £200 million to make. Despite these marketing tactics that range from the extravagant (a life size X-Wing on display at the London premiere of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)), to the bizarre (free packets of breath mints adorned with the films title given away at the first run screenings of The Transporter (2002)), the trailer remains the most effective weapon in a films marketing arsenal.

The trailer has been an integral part of film promotion since feature length sound films were made. It offers the audience the first visual images from the film itself. This is important in establishing to cinemagoers what kind of film it is, who it stars and what they can expect. The construction of the trailer is all the more essential today, especially in the era of the high concept film and the importance attached to the opening weekend at the box office, the takings of which can make or break a Hollywood blockbuster.

To begin with, I want to consider what is referred to as the ‘high concept’ film. In one way, the name given to this form of filmmaking is somewhat paradoxical. The high concept film tends to have a simplified narrative that is easy to understand, market and consume. The image and style of the film dominates all other aspects so we are left with, in the worst example, a superficial production with no real depth or meaning. These films can be categorised into certain types that an audience is familiar with, films that guarantee pleasures we are accustomed to, films that do what they say on the tin. In the case of the high concept movie, the tin is the film trailer and poster.

High Concept and the Memorable Image

The most significant factor in the design of the film poster lies in the creation of a memorable image, a recognizable identifying image that an audience can relate to the film in question, E.T (1982) is a prime example. The image of E.T’s outstretched finger touching that of Eliot’s establishes the film as the emotional story of a connection between E.T and a young child. This singular image is transferred to the trailer and acts as a kind of brand for the film itself, something that is remembered by audiences. I would argue that trailers for high concept films can also create a similar ‘brand’ in the form of a scene or clip from the film. This could be an extension of the image used on the poster or something entirely different. Such clips are granted a sense of importance in the trailer through the use of a musical crescendo and by being placed, usually, at the end of the trailer itself. These clips are also repeated in the T.V trailers that are usually only thirty seconds long or less; a short time span that requires a careful choice of striking and memorable images. The constant repetition of the same image in the promotion of a film eventually leads to an audience connection between said image and the film it is from. One example comes from the series of films that have had a phenomenal marketing strength through the vast array of characters in the films and grandiose special effects. I am of course referring to the Star Wars franchise.

After the criticism from fans and critics alike for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), George Lucas and his team had to create a sense of excitement for the second instalment despite the huge fan base that Star Wars has. They managed to stir up additional interest in the film through the character of Yoda. The trailer for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) featured Yoda in the final scene, activating his light sabre in preparation for battle. This was accompanied by a TV teaser trailer campaign of a similar image, playing on the anticipation of seeing Yoda fight a light sabre duel. The focus on this popular character was designed to arouse interest in the film with

a promise of more action than it’s predecessor, a film that was criticized for it’s lengthy sections of dialogue and lack of excitement. A similar campaign for the third film, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, involves the creation of anticipation for the return of Darth Vader. The end of the trailer features a short scene from the film of Darth Vader, accompanied by the sound of his distinctive heavy breathing. Excitement is generated through the guaranteed return of characters who have taken on a legendary status for fans of the film. The Star Wars films are extraordinary in their position as blueprints for the modern day high concept film. High box office returns are more or less guaranteed for a film in George Lucas’ series through the extensive interest in the films that is already in place. The Star Wars marketing campaign didn’t cease after the release of Return of the Jedi (1983), spin off films, books and continuous merchandising have ensured that interest in the franchise has remained for the more recent productions to take advantage of. Further audience interest is mustered through a concentrated campaign centred around characters who are already well known, not only to the hardcore fans, but also to the average cinemagoer.

Diverse Audiences and Formulaic Trailers

Not all high concept films can follow the route of films like Star Wars and Jurassic Park on their quest for high revenues. Be Cool (2005) (the sequel to Get Shorty) does not have the vast merchandising potential to compete with these films yet the trailer adheres to the generic formula of the majority of high concept film trailers. There are no small, green, light sabre wielding aliens, monstrous dinosaurs or spectacular special effects for the marketing team to exploit in Be Cool. What it does have, are elements that are used to appeal to a wide range of audience groups. The modern day high concept trailer must be made with a multitude of target audiences in mind. This is a factor that is taken into consideration, usually, before the film is even shot. A film cannot appeal to one demographic; it must speak to different audience factions in different ways. By altering the way in which a film is sold through various forms of promotion and to various audience groups, the film maximises it’s potential for large box office returns. The high concept film has to be ambiguous, able to morph into whatever the audience desires. In Hollywood, Hype and Audiences (Manchester University Press, 2002), Thomas Austin delves into the inconsistent ways in which Bram Stokers Dracula (1992) was sold. When analysing the way in which the film was presented, Austin identifies a number of tactics undertaken in its promotion.

“It (Bram Stokers Dracula) was variously advertised,
reviewed and consumed as the latest creation of an
auteur, a star vehicle (for any of four stars), a reworking
of a popular myth, an adaptation of a literary ‘classic’,
as horror, art film or romance, or as a mixture of
these genres. In other words, Bram Stokers Dracula
was organised as a dispersible text, designed and
positioned to touch base with all the sectors of
the audience”.

So Bram Stokers Dracula was promoted in different ways to appeal to different, often oppositional, audience types. Francis Ford Coppola’s reputation as a Hollywood auteur was exploited along with the famous story of Dracula and the appeal of the films many stars. The trailer attempts to focus on many of these aspects in order to ‘hook’ as diverse an audience as possible. In much the same way, the trailer for Be Cool promotes the film using the same method.

In the opening ten seconds of the Be Cool trailer the viewer is instantly informed that this is the sequel to Get Shorty (1995), the predominant selling point of the film. The sequel film must strive to connect itself with the original that we assume (as it has spawned a second film) must have had a degree of success. The familiar voice over informs us that this film comes from the author and producers of Get Shorty and in the process of two scenes we are up to speed with what the central protagonist, Chili Palmer (played by John Travolta), has been up to. We hear Chili say “I’ve been thinking about getting out of the movie business” and in an instant he is discussing becoming involved in the music industry with another character. The premise for the entire film is explained in seconds, Be Cool is simply Get Shorty in a slightly different setting. This is a film that fans of the original are familiar with including the character of Chili Palmer. There are numerous scenes of him hurling people across tables and through windows in the cool, calm and collected manner he did in the first film. Like all sequels, Be Cool is sold primarily on the strength of its connection to its predecessor Get Shorty.

The inclusion of several well-known stars is another trait of the high concept film. Having a cast of actors who appeal to a variety of audience groups will arouse interest in those who have enjoyed the previous films of the actors in question. Be Cool has a plethora of stars, one of whom was almost certainly chosen due to her cinematic history with John Travolta. The star power of Travolta, Harvey Keitel, Vince Vaughn, Uma Thurman and The Rock is heavily used to promote the film. I want to highlight the inclusion of Uma Thurman and The Rock in particular. When Thurman and Travolta starred in Pulp Fiction (1994) together, the dance scene became one of the most memorable moments of the film. By casting them together in Be Cool, the producers and director have attempted to exploit this scene, directly referencing Pulp Fiction in the trailer. A clip from the trailer shows Thurman and Travolta sitting opposite each other, Thurman asks “Do you dance Chili?” and before you know it we see them on the dance floor together. Even the camera angle and setting evoke memories of the original. This link to Pulp Fiction attempts to rekindle memories of the film in the viewer, virtually transporting a scene from another film into Be Cool. Its inclusion cannot be classed as homage to Pulp Fiction in the way that the Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925) was used in The Untouchables (1987) for example. This is used as a marketing ploy, as a spectacle within the film designed to attract fans of Pulp Fiction. The dance sequence does not progress the narrative in any way, its existence is specifically tailored towards an audience group as a film spectacle.

The casting of the WWE wrestler, The Rock, also provided another direct link into a large audience group, the fans of WWE wrestling. The popularity of WWE wrestling is global and the character of The Rock is one of the most famous wrestlers from the last decade. He is referred to as his character name, The Rock, in the trailer rather than his real name. There is also a clip from the film where he raises one eyebrow and poses menacingly. This is another direct reference to popular culture. The eyebrow pose is synonymous with the character of The Rock and is well known to anyone who has ever watched WWE wrestling. The inclusion of a famous ex wrestler will attract another guaranteed audience type, an audience that is catered for through his exposure in the trailer.

In terms of genre, Be Cool is sold as both a comedy and a gangster film. The scenes used in the trailer fall generally into two categories, one liners and jokes and images of violence. The majority are comical clips from the film inserted with shots of Chili beating up bikers and references to gangster rappers and the Russian mafia. The trailer for Be Cool sells the film in a variety of alternative ways. It allows for the film to be interpreted differently by different viewers or audience types. Essentially it can be broken down into the following:

1. A star vehicle for John Travolta, Harvey Keitel, Uma Thurman or The Rock
2. A comedy/gangster film
3. An adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel
4. A sequel to a popular film
5. The latest film from the director of The Italian Job (2003)

The trailer for Be Cool uses established tastes in other area’s of popular culture and entertainment and offers to the audience a set of what Thomas Austin calls “guaranteed pleasures”4, something that is already known to the audience, something they are familiar with. Not only do these marketing tactics act as the ‘guaranteed pleasures’ that Austin mentioned, but also as ‘guaranteed returns’ for the film studio’s. There is evidently less risk in offering to the cinema going public a film that they know and understand before they have even entered the theatre.

The Foreign Language Film Trailer

The difficulty in selling a foreign film, especially to a British audience, is the bane of distributors who are given the task of promoting it. The notion of reading subtitles, the lack of a recognisable star and the sense of ‘otherness’ in the foreign film, breed’s unfamiliarity and disinterest in many a cinemagoer. After all, why would someone watch a French drama when they can see Travolta and Thurman strut their stuff on the dance floor? Often, a trailer for a foreign language film will play to its strengths and focus on aspects of its potential appeal to a Western audience. The British trailer’s for The Chorus (2005) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) contain no dialogue in them whatsoever. Instead, the trailer for The Chorus consists of scenes from the film set to a song from the soundtrack. The marketing focus is directly centred on the music from the film, the soundtrack of which has sold well. Likewise, the trailer for House of Flying Daggers removes the element of the foreign language in favour of the striking imagery and use of colour in the film. The martial arts aspect is dominant and we are witness to images of spectacular choreography set to the same theme music as used in Gladiator (2000). The connection to Hero (2002) is also referred to through text which states ‘From the director who brought you Hero’, a link to a film that was successful in the U.K. The need to instil a sense of recognition into the trailer is a vital aspect to consider in its production, especially for foreign language films. To detract away from the fact that it is a foreign language film also seems to be a consistent trait of these trailers. By focussing on other aspects such as visual imagery and music, the fact that the films are in a foreign language is softened, almost whispered as an afterthought once we have been transfixed by the stunning visuals and the uplifting soundtrack.

The existence of the film trailer is short lived. Despite all of the time, thought and effort put into it’s production and the importance it has in the success of a film it is forgotten and discarded once the film itself is released. They live on as DVD extras but are largely ignored in the studies of cinema and marketing. In the two or three minutes the trailer has to interest us there are certain marketing strategies it must adhere to gain our interest. Recognition, memorable images, logos or music must all be used and exploited in order to hit home with as many sectors of the audience as possible. The trailers that fail to succeed in this task are the ones we forget, and if the trailers are easily forgotten then so is the film.

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